Think of the 2015 Philadelphia mayoral contest as a bicycle race -- a loooong, boring six-person peloton -- endlessly, cautiously looping around Manayunk and the Art Museum circle. Finally, mercifully, someone blows the horn for the last lap. It's now or never. Somebody has to make a move, even though much of the pack lost its mojo many, many miles back.
Tony Williams (or Anthony Hardy Williams, or Anthony Williams, or Ted Williams, or Tone Loc...I forget what we're calling him this week) has heard the horn...and it's panic time. His trading guru backers from the Main Line have invested millions of dollars in the West Philly state senator with possibly nothing to show for it, other than a couple of slick TV ads and a campaign that one of my colleagues generously calls "rudderless." With the growing sense that it's former City Council member Jim Kenney who's busting out of the slow-moving cluster, Williams is desperately pedaling toward the only open lane he sees.
So say goodbye to buttoned-down Harrisburg insider policy wonk. Say hello to Tony Williams, #PhillyIsBaltimore street radical. OK, maybe not quite radical, but what is clear is that in the waning days of the mayor's race, Team Tony has made one of the crassest calculations in recent Philadelphia political memory (which is saying something, isn't it?)
Williams' initial strategy -- which had many pundits, myself included, thinking at the start of the year that he was the frontrunner -- was staggeringly simple: 1) Establish himself as the predominant African-American candidate in a fractured field, while energizing black voters to turn out in big, or at least decent, numbers and 2) accomplish No. 1) through the wherewithal of his three affluent backers from the Susquehanna International Group. But Williams 1.0 didn't excite black voters...because he didn't excite anyone. From his awkward opening annoucement to his failure to embrace his signature issue -- charter schools -- Williams has been running a very expensive head-scratcher of a campaign.
But while the idea of Williams as mayor wasn't firing up young black voters in Philadelphia, something else did. That would be the #BlackLivesMatter movement, spawned in Ferguson, hardened last month on the streets of Baltimore. Metaphorically, at least, Williams has shed his tailored suit and adopted the fiery cloth of a civil rights advocate, a kind of a modern-day Stokely Carmichael (ask your dad). It turns out the Williams campaign was really all about stickin' it to The Man. Who knew?.
And so it was Williams who ran the first negative ad of the race about "policing our communities." It lambastes Kenney for what indeed was an awful and intemperate quote about police use of force -- albeit one that was uttered in 1997, long before the emotional shoot-from-the-hip South Philly pol underwent an evolution on crime policy. (In the century we now live in, the 21st, it's been Kenney who called for ending police stop-and-frisk practices and for decriminalizing pot, before both issues became trendy.)
An odd and unexpected pronouncement -- that cops who use racial slurs or other language deemed "hate speech" would be drummed from the force without arbitration -- became a centerpiece of the new Williams campaign. And when that didn't move the dial, Williams pronounced that it was time for a change at the very top, that if he's elected he will give the boot to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.